More Proof that Higher Contributions Are Most Important to Retirement Plan Success

A study by the Putnam Institute, “Defined Contribution Plans: Missing the forest for the trees?” contends that while a number of variables, such as fund selection, asset allocation, portfolio re-balancing, and deferral (contribution) rates all contribute to a defined contribution plan’s effectiveness — or lack thereof — it is deferral rates that should be placed near the top of the hierarchy when considering ways to boost retirement saving success.1

As part of its analysis, the research team created a hypothetical scenario in which an individual’s contribution rate increased from 3% of income to 4%, 6%, and 8%. After 29 years, the final balance jumped from $138,000, to $181,000, $272,000, and $334,000, respectively.

Even with a just a 1% increase — to a 4% deferral rate — the participant’s final accumulation would have been 30% greater than it would have been using a fund selection strategy defined as the “Crystal Ball” strategy, in which the plan sponsor uses a predefined formula to predict which funds may potentially perform well for the next three-year period. Further, the 1% boost in income deferral would have had a wealth accumulation effect nearly 100% larger than a growth asset allocation strategy, and 2,000% greater than rebalancing. Of course these results are hypothetical and past performance does not guarantee future results.

One key takeaway of the study was for plan sponsors to find ways to communicate the benefits of higher deferral rates to employees, and to help them find ways to do so.

Retirement Savings Tips

The Employee Benefit Research Institute reported in 2014 that 44% of American workers have tried to figure out how much money they will need to accumulate for retirement, and one-third admit they are not doing a good job in their financial planning for retirement.2 Are you? If so, these strategies may help you to better identify and pursue your retirement savings goals:

Double-check your assumptions. When do you plan to retire? How much money will you need each year? Where and when do you plan to get your retirement income? Are your investment expectations in line with the performance potential of the investments you own?

Use a proper “calculator.” The best way to calculate your goal is by using one of the many interactive worksheets now available free of charge online and in print. Each type features questions about your financial situation as well as blank spaces for you to provide answers. But remember, your ultimate goal is to save as much money as possible for retirement regardless of what any calculator might suggest.

Contribute more. At the very least, try to contribute enough to receive the full amount of any employer’s matching contribution. It’s also a good idea to increase contributions annually, such as after a pay raise.

Retirement will likely be one of the biggest expenses in your life, so it’s important to maintain an accurate cost estimate and financial plan. Make it a priority to calculate your savings goal at least once a year.

If you would like to review your current deferral rate(s) or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.


1Putnam Institute, Defined Contribution Plans: Missing the forest for the trees?, May 2014.

2Ruth Helman, Nevin Adams, Craig Copeland, and Jack VanDerhei. “The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Rebounds–for Those With Retirement Plans,” EBRI Issue Brief, no. 397, March 2014.

Is myRA Your Next Retirement Plan?

Chances are, you’ve heard about the new myRA retirement savings program that was proposed by President Obama during his State of the Union speech.  But what is it, and how does it relate to the array of other retirement savings options you already have–including, of course, traditional and Roth IRAs, 401(k) or 403(b) plans?  Is this something you need to be looking at in addition to, or instead of one of these other options?
The new account, which is scheduled to be introduced later this year, will be offered to workers who currently don’t have access to any kind of retirement program through their employers.  Remarkably, this underserved population is actually about half of all workers, mostly those who work for small companies which have trouble affording the cost of creating and administering a 401(k) plan.  The idea is that a myRA would be so easy to install and implement (employers don’t have to administer the invested assets), and cost so little (virtually nothing), that all of these smaller companies would immediately give their employees this savings option.
Only some of the employees would be eligible, however.  Married couples earning more than $191,000, or singles earning more than $129,000, would be excluded from making myRA contributions.  And there is currently no law which says that employers would be required to offer these plans.
So the first thing to understand is that people who already have a retirement plan at work, or who earn more than the thresholds, shouldn’t give the myRA option a second thought.
Nor, frankly, would those people want to shift over to this option.  Why?  myRA functions much like a Roth IRA, which means that contributions are taxed before they go into the account just like the rest of a person’s salary, but the money will come out tax-free.
Anybody can make annual contributions to a Roth IRA; the 2014 maximum is $5,500 for persons under age 50; $6,500 if you’re 50 or older–and these are the same limits that will be imposed on the myRA.  BUT–and this is a big issue–the myRA is not really an investment account.  Any funds that are contributed to a myRA account earns interest from the federal government at the same rate that federal employees earn through the Thrift Savings Plan Government Securities Investment Fund–which is another way of saying that the money will be invested in government bonds.
Why does that matter?  Retirement accounts that invested solely in the stock market earned close to 30% from their stock investments last year.  The government bond investments that would have gone into a myRA earned 1.89% last year–which is below the inflation rate.  In real dollars, that was a losing investment.
Another big issue is the employer match.  Many workers who have a traditional 401(k) account get some of their contributions matched by their company, which effectively boosts their earnings.  myRA accounts will get no such match.
The Obama Administration clearly understands the difference between saving in a government bond account and actual investing.  Accordingly, there is a provision that whenever a myRA account reaches $15,000, it has to be rolled into a Roth IRA, where the money can be deployed in stocks, bonds or anywhere else the account holder chooses.  The program seems to be designed to encourage younger workers to start saving much earlier than they currently do.  Statistics show that the median retirement account for American workers age 25-32 is just $12,000, and 37% have less than $5,000. 
Will they be motivated to save when myRAs roll out at the end of the year?  Some commentators have noted that the money can be taken out of the account, for any reason, at any time, with no tax consequences.  That’s not a great formula for long-term savings.  But it does make the myRA account a convenient way for a worker just starting out to build up a cash reserve which could serve as a cushion against job loss or unexpected expenses like car repairs.  If it is not needed, the account could eventually grow into a retirement nest egg.
If you have any questions about the myRA or any other investment, retirement or financial planning matter, please don’t hesitate to ask.  We are a fee-only financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

Should College Freshman Start A Roth IRA?

At no time since the Great Depression have college students worried more about money.  Tuition continues to rise, financing sources continue to contract.  So why should a student worry about finding money for, of all things, retirement?

Because even a few dollars a week put toward a Roth IRA can reap enormous benefits over the 40-50 years of a career lifetime that today’s average college student will complete after graduation.  Take the example of an 18-year-old who contributes $5,000 each year of school until she graduates.  Assume that $20,000 grows at 7.5 percent a year until age 65.  That would mean more than a half-million dollars from that initial four-year investment without adding another dime.

Consider what would happen if she added more.

There are a few considerations before a student starts to accumulate funds for the IRA.  First, students should try and avoid or extinguish as much debt – particularly high-rate credit card debt – as possible.  Then, it’s time to establish an emergency fund of 3-6 months of living expenses to make sure that a student can continue to afford the basics at school if an unexpected problem occurs.

To contribute to an IRA, you must have earned income; that is, income earned from a job or self-employment.  Even working in the family business is allowable if you get a form W-2 or 1099 for your earnings.  Contributions from savings, investment income or other sources is not allowed.

Certainly $5,000 a year sounds like an enormous amount of outside money for today’s student to gather, but it’s not impossible.  Here’s some information about Roth IRAs and ideas for students to find the money to fund them.

The basics of Roth IRAs: I’ll start by describing the difference between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA and why a Roth might be a better choice for the average student.   Traditional IRAs allow investors to save money tax-deferred with deductible contributions until they’re ready to begin withdrawals anytime between age 59 ½ and 70 ½.  After age 70 1/2, minimum withdrawals become mandatory.

Roth IRAs don’t allow a current tax-deductible contribution; instead they allow tax-free withdrawal of funds with no mandatory distribution age and allow these assets to pass to heirs tax-free as well.   If someone leaves their savings in the Roth for at least five years and waits until they’re 59 1/2 to take withdrawals, they’ll never pay taxes on the gains. That’s a good thing in light of expected increases in future tax rates.  For someone in their late teens and early 20s, that offers the potential for significant earnings over decades with great tax consequences later.  Also, after five years and before you turn age 59 1/2, you may withdraw your original contributions (not any accumulated earnings) without penalty.

Getting started is easy: Some banks, brokerages and mutual fund companies will let an investor open a Roth IRA for as little as $50 and $25 a month afterward. It’s a good idea to check around for the lowest minimum amounts that can get a student in the game so they can plan to increase those contributions as their income goes up over time.  Also, some institutions offer cash bonuses for starting an account.  Go with the best deal and start by putting that bonus right into the account.  Watch the fine print for annual fees or commissions and avoid them if possible.

It’s wise to get advice first: Every student’s financial situation is different. One of the best gifts a student can get is an early visit – accompanied by their parents – to a financial advisor such as a Certified Financial Planner™ professional.   A planner trained in working with students can certainly talk about this IRA idea, but also provide a broader viewpoint on a student’s overall goals and challenges.  While starting an early IRA is a great idea for everyone, students may also need to know how to find scholarships, grants and other smart ideas for borrowing to stay in school.  A good planner is a one-stop source of advice for all those issues unique to the student’s situation.

Plan to invest a set percentage from the student’s vacation, part-time or work/study paychecks: People who save in excess of 10 percent of their earnings are much better positioned for retirement than anyone else. Remarkably few people set that goal.  One of the benefits of the IRA idea is it gets students committing early to the 10 percent figure every time they deposit a paycheck. It’s a habit that will help them build a good life.  Better yet, set up an automatic withdrawal from your savings or checking account for the IRA contribution.

Get relatives to contribute: If a student regularly gets gifts of money from relatives, it might not be a bad idea to mention the IRA idea to those relatives.  Adults like to help kids who are smart with money, and if the student can commit to this savings plan rather than spending it at the mall, they might feel considerably better about the money they give away.  At a minimum, the student should earmark a set amount of “found” money like birthday and holiday gift money toward a Roth IRA in excess of the 10 percent figure.  Again, the IRA contributions cannot exceed the student’s earned income for the year.

Sam H. Fawaz is a Certified Financial Planner ( CFP ), Certified Public Accountant and registered member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) fee-only financial planner group.  Sam has expertise in many areas of personal finance and wealth management and has always been fascinated with the role of money in society.  Helping others prosper and succeed has been Sam’s mission since he decided to dedicate his life to financial planning.  He specializes in entrepreneurs, professionals, company executives and their families. This column was co-authored by Sam H. Fawaz CPA, CFP and the Financial Planning Association, the membership organization for the financial planning community, and is provided by YDream Financial Services, Inc., a local member of FPA.

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